The obsession with slip-ups betrays not just the smallness of our politics, but of many of those who cover and consume it
Marina Hyde, The Guardian
General election spoiler alert: at some point, somewhere on the campaign trail, some senior politician will accidentally say "cut" when they meant to say "increase spending on", or "David Cameron" when they meant "Gordon Brown". This will be a big deal. In fact, it will be a huge deal. I can tell you now that your scepticism about how big a deal it actually has to be does not become you in the slightest.
But back to our gaffe. By nightfall, there will scarcely be anyone in the 18-65 age group who hasn't seen the clip of the incident and doesn't have a view about it, even if that view is "ROFL", or "Our politics is now so witless that it is as if we are actively courting an invasion by more intelligent life forms". Through the night, mischievous geeks will mash up the clip with a scene from Downfall or Glee. Within 24 hours, the slip of the tongue should have full spectrum dominance, allowing a wag on any number of our 37 topical panel shows to grin smugly and wheel out the old line about a Freudian slip being when you mean one thing but say your mother. Meanwhile, rolling news channels will be staging studio discussions about the howler, staffed by those who make a living out of retroactively detecting order in the formless tide of disappointment that passes for the British political experience. Phrases like "turning point", "fightback" or "nail in the coffin" will be used.
As I say, apologies for the spoiler, though flights out of the UK may be cheaper if you book them now, rather than waiting till mid-April and hoping for something last minute. Should you decide to linger, be advised that the 2010 election will be brought to you in Gaffe-o-Vision.
In the olden times, you see, political gaffes were brought to you at leisurely pace in printed reports, or occasionally in TV clips that were given a single airing on the nightly news. As the chroniclers of the viral age tell us, they could make a big splash, but they only rarely produced ripples. These days, it's like a hyperdriven wave pool out there. During the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama's comment that bitter working class voters "cling to guns and religion" had been fitted with its –gate suffix within about 20 seconds of it escaping from his lips, and it was possible to watch the Bittergate clip several times an hour on news channels, on the off chance you hadn't already seen it on YouTube or been emailed it by concerned morons.
So we have all this to look forward to. Like James Cameron's Avatar, we're being encouraged to think of the 2010 election as a game changer. Finally, the technology has caught up with the vision, that vision being arguably the most cynical imaginable. Namely, that politicians' slips are more significant than anything they could possibly ever say on purpose. Don your 2D glasses and enter a world where a clip in which Ken Clarke is picked up on mic saying "buggeration" really will be listened to more than ones in which he talks about Europe.
Campaigning is now so slick and second-guessed that many have long judged the only way to introduce drama into the coverage of it is to literally wait for the players to make a pratfall. The advent of cameraphones means we've all been invited to play along, as though politics were a giant version of You've Been Framed, only with people falling face down in crime statistics as opposed to paddling pools or cat litter trays.
It's certainly one way to marry form and content. The internet's capabilities are mighty and awesome, but rather like children who prefer to play with the box than the daunting new toy it contains, many people primarily use it to search for upskirt pictures of Britney Spears. And so with the election, where it will mainly be used to disseminate clips of John Prescott accidentally saying "wankers' bonuses" in Yeovil.
Is this progress? For all the faux-anarchic merriment it might seem to provide at the time, it's hard not to see the whole slide to this kind of lolcat politics as fundamentally and depressingly pointless. It's born from a mix of nuclear boredom and a toxic sense of impotence, certainly, but it's likely to perpetuate the same. The obsession with slip-ups betrays not just the smallness of our politics, but of many of those who cover it. And, alas, many of those who consume and spread that coverage.
The expenses revelations provided the public with a glorious gotcha moment, confirming many people's long-held suspicions about their elected representatives to a degree that surprised even themselves. Yet sitting back to wait for petty echoes of it would be a misguided attempt to chase the high.
Of course, there's something immediately satisfying about hearing any politician accidentally speak what I'm afraid most of us now assume is their dark subconscious. But instantly gratifying though it is, it is a pastime of diminishing returns. Even those who assume politicians are always lying must accept it would be edifying if we could somehow avoid spending the entire campaign crowing about, and clicking on, the other side's brainmelts.
Obviously UK-centric but I think it's pertinent to us all. Also, pretty interesting that the Guardian's showbiz columnist is producing some of their best political commentary right now. Sign of the times?